U.S. destroyer in pursuit of hijacked tanker off the shore of Somalia

Published 30 October 2007

Somali pirates on Sunday hijacked a tanker carrying benzene; USS Arleigh Burke entered Somali territorial water in hot pursuit

We have written several stories about Somalia, a poor country in the Horn of Africa which has been in the process of disintegration for a decade-and-a-half now. The country no longer exists as meaningful nation-state, and the central “government” does not control more than a few city blocks in the heart of the capital. The rule over the rest of the coutnry is divided among various war lords, marauding militias, rag-tag groups of bandits, and al-Queda supporting Islamists. Amidst the chaos and collapse there is one industry flourishing: Piracy. Small groups of Somalis — many former military or police, hijack pleasure boats and ships and hold them for ransom. The latest case of hijacking is especially brazen: Over the weekend, Somali pirates have hijacked a Japanese-owned tanker loaded with benzene. A U.S. destroyer has now entered Somali territorial waters in pursuit of the hijacked tanker. The guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke entered Somali waters with the permission of the troubled transitional government in Mogadishu (this is the government that controls the few city blocks). In recent years, warships have stayed outside the twelve-mile limit when chasing pirates.

Gunmen aboard two skiffs hijacked the Panamanian-flagged Golden Mori off the Socotra archipelago, near the Horn of Africa, said Andrew Mwangura, a spokesman for Kenya’s Seafarers’ Assistance Program. The Golden Mori radioed for help Sunday night. The Burke’s sister ship, the USS Porter, opened fire and sank the pirate skiffs tied to its stern before the Burke took over shadowing the hijacked vessel. When the shots were fired, it was not known the ship was filled with highly flammable benzene. U.S. military officials indicate there is a great deal of concern about the cargo because it is so sensitive. Benzene, which U.S. authorities have declared a known human carcinogen, is used as a solvent and to make plastics and synthetic fabrics. U.S. and NATO warships have been patrolling off the Horn of Africa for several years in an effort to crack down on piracy off Somalia. In June the destroyer USS Carter Hall fired warning shots in an attempt to stop a hijacked Danish cargo ship off Somalia, but the American vessel had to turn away when the pirated ship entered Somali waters (the Danish government eventually paid the ransom to free the ship). In May a U.S. Navy advisory warned merchant ships to stay at least 200 miles off the Somali coast, but the U.S. Maritime Administrationsaid pirates sometimes issue false distress calls to lure ships closer to shore. The pirates are often armed with automatic rifles and shoulder-fired rockets, according to a recent warning from the agency. “To date, vessels that increase speed and take evasive maneuvers avoid boarding, while those that slow down are boarded, taken to the Somali coastline and released after successful ransom payment, often after protracted negotiations of as much as 11 weeks,” the Maritime Administration advised. The agency issued a new warning to sailors in the Gulf of Aden, between Somalia and Yemen, after Sunday’s hijacking was reported.